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Campaign Notebook: Democratic Convention

September 02, 2008 5 min read
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Biden and Obama In Sync on Education

Sen. Barack Obama chose his running mate for experience on issues other than education policy.

In his nearly 36 years in the U.S. Senate, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware has focused his work on foreign policy, the federal judiciary, and crime legislation. But he hasn’t made a significant mark on K-12 education measures.

In accepting the Democratic vice presidential nomination on Aug. 25, Sen. Biden demonstrated that he supports the presidential nominee’s ideas on education.

“Barack Obama knows that any country that out-teaches us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” Sen. Biden told delegates to the Democratic National Convention at the Pepsi Center arena here. “He’ll invest us in the next generation of teachers. He’ll make college more affordable. That’s the change we need.”

And some of the comments Sen. Biden made during his own campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination illuminate where he stands on education policy.

In a Nov. 15 debate, Sen. Biden said he supports performance pay for teachers, which he defined as rewarding teachers financially for improving their credentials and completing higher-level degrees. He did not explicitly offer an opinion on giving bonuses or salary increases to teachers based on the performance of their students. (Mr. Biden’s wife, Jill, is a community college instructor.)

Throughout the primary season, Sen. Obama, meanwhile, touted his support for offering alternative systems of pay to successful teachers. He has said such plans need to be approved under contracts negotiated by school districts and the unions representing their teachers.

In a July 2007 debate, Sen. Biden said he would undertake a “major overhaul” of the No Child Left Behind Act if he were elected president.

“I think I’d start from the beginning,” said Mr. Biden, who voted for the law in 2001. “You need better teachers. You need smaller classrooms. You need to start kids earlier. It’s all basic.”

While Sen. Obama has been critical of the NCLB law, he has said that its core principle of holding schools accountable for the achievement of their students is a good starting point for federal policy. In speeches during the primary campaign, Mr. Obama said that many of the law’s problems could be fixed by improving the quality of the tests used to measure student achievement.

Even though Sen. Biden doesn’t have a big record of involvement in education issues, one educator says he’s been an advocate for teachers’ unions and their members.

“Senator Biden has always been for the working person. He is pro-union,” said Crystal Barnett, a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Ms. Barnett, who works as an information specialist for the affiliate of the 1.4 million member American Federation of Teachers, lives in Delaware and attended the convention as a delegate for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.—David J. Hoff

ED in ’09?

ED in ’08, the $60 million campaign to promote education as a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign, wasn’t a thunderous force here at the Democratic convention.

So what was the group’s strategy? Basically, it involved inserting former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat and a superdelegate to the convention, into as many scheduled events as possible to help raise the level of debate on education.

The group has also made a $5 million ad buy in seven battleground states, including a full-page ad in The Denver Post and a spate of TV, radio, and online ads. The states are Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The group plans to expand its strategy to an eighth state—Minnesota—where the Republican National Convention is being held this week, in St. Paul.

With the election about two months away, Gov. Romer said in an interview last week after a school choice event at the Denver Country Club that this strategy is evolving as ED in ’08 seeks to live past its target expiration date on Nov. 4—Election Day.

The effort is financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (both of which also provide grant support for Education Week projects) and is run by the group Strong American Schools. ED in ’08 has aired provocative TV commercials and sponsored numerous panel discussions, but has not been able to make education a major issue in the campaign. (“Effort for Education as Campaign Issue Fights for Traction,” Dec. 5, 2007.)

Now, Mr. Romer said, one of the chief goals for ED in ’08 is to be a player in the presidential transition, whether the winner is Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain. ED in ’08 recognizes that getting its voice heard in the final 60 days will be difficult. After all, Mr. Romer said, “the campaigns aren’t thinking about profound policy now. They’re thinking about how they’re going to win.”

Mr. Romer said he met with some of Sen. Obama’s staff members last week to talk education. Presumably, Strong American Schools Executive Director Marc S. Lampkin, a Republican, is attempting the same outreach this week in St. Paul. —Michele McNeil

Miller Keeps Hopes Up for NCLB

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said here last week that he met Barack Obama through Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the other senator from Illinois and one of the tenants of Mr. Miller’s Capitol Hill row house.

Sen. Obama occasionally came over for a dinner of takeout Chinese food, and to talk about issues with Rep. Miller and his roommates. The chairman was impressed by Mr. Obama’s knowledge of educational issues, particularly on the No Child Left Behind Act.

“He understands that the basic tenets of No Child Left Behind—high standards, assessments, accountability, highly qualified teachers, funding—are very important,” Rep. Miller said.

Rep. Miller acknowledged that NCLB’s reauthorization won’t be a top priority for the next president, but the chairman was optimistic about the prospects for the law.

Will NCLB get a new name? “I’ve always said you get 100 votes if you change the name,” Rep. Miller said.

Would he like to be secretary of education in an Obama administration? “I love what I’m doing,” he responded. —D.J.H.

A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Biden and Obama In Sync on Education

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